Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.19


Dora C. Pozzi and John M. Wickersham (edd.), Myth and the Polis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp. 232. $28.95 (hb). $8.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8014-2473 (hb). ISBN 0-8014-9734-5 (pb).


Reviewed by Daniel P. Tompkins, Temple University.

Ou sont les Nagys d'antan? Imagine a party game in which classicists are asked to explicate this line. Followers of Roman Jakobson, unfurling charts and graphs, would praise the chiasmatic anticipation ("Nagys") of the repeated -an that follows; devotees of a certain style of textual criticism would emend, as they so often do when confronting difficult passages in Aeschylus or Plato ("Villon nowhere else violates rules of agreement"). The prosopographically inclined, interpreting as so often by aversion, would rush from the poem to an Oxford compendium (European Propertied Families?) to learn who this character might be. "Humanists," scoffing at the irrelevance of "ancillary disciplines," would differ among themselves: some would see a solitary heroic figure in these lines; others would fix on their post-lapsarian tone, the Vergilian sense of loss; still others might aver that the poet, adept in prophecy, foresaw a golden age to come.

As the essays in this volume reveal, the last of these fanciful suggestions may be the most true. Written by participants in a 1985 NEH Seminar for College Teachers directed by Gregory Nagy at Harvard, the volume's homage to the teacher is revealed not in slavish adherence to his positions but in shared concern with certain problems (the development of epic over time, the strength of "primitive" thought in "civilized" times, the poetry of praise, the ideology of the polis) and approaches (especially etymological and anthropological). Taken as a whole, the volume is a model of collaborative work.

In their "Introduction," the two editors argue that myths serve as a "vector" for the culture of the polis, embodying its values & sense of identity. Commending Detienne's well-known essay, "The Greeks are not Like the Others," they point to the continuing strength of mythic thought in classical Greece, both in "epichoric" celebrations of autonomous poleis and in a panhellenic canon ("one of the most striking outcomes of the Archaic age") that envisions "an abstract ultra-polis," the Herodotean to Hellenikon (8.144.2). Indeed, Herodotus is here viewed as asking whether the polis has "discovered a moral law of universal validity?" The editors conclude that it does, noting that Herodotus views dike universally as a correction to hubris. The editors note that we cannot tell whether epichoric preceded panhellenic myth, and suggest that the two developed in tandem, with the polis gradually supplanting the family as referent of myth and cult.

Chapter One, by Wickersham, is entitled "Myth and Identity in the Archaic Polis." Wickersham's subject is the conflict between Athens and Megara over ownership of Salamis, "one of the assumedly numerous crises of myth and polis whereby the poleis of Archaic Greece found, reinforced, lost, enhanced, or otherwise adjusted the dignity of their individual status in myth at both the epichoric and pan-Hellenic levels." Wickersham studies the evolution of myths in both poleis, asserting that in this period of epic consolidation Solon and the Megarians both cited Iliadic authority to link Ajax with their cities. Megara subsequently sponsored a genealogy that rehabilitated Skeiron (Theseus' victim en route to Athens) as great-grandfather of not only Ajax but Achilles. Finally, the Megarian historian Hereas (centuries afterward) refuted Solon's claim that ancient burial styles on Salamis diverged from Megarian custom.

In a detailed and well-annotated analysis, Wickersham demonstrates how, even after Athenian possession of Salamis was irreversible, Megara deployed genealogy, ritual, myth and cult to make its case. "The loss of the material island was one thing, but the disturbance of the web of myth threatened the whole polis." The Solonic stratagem, of quoting (or inventing) a "Homeric" distich about Ajax to hint "as inoffensively as possible that Ajax or Salamis might have some connection to Athens," (p. 30) succeeded in part because Solon's version fit the panhellenic consensus. The dispute over Salamis had a formative effect on this section of the Iliad, which was not yet canonically fixed; there was no third, "correct" version for comparative purposes, only the epichoric texts.

It is hard to imagine where the agonistic temper of Greek culture is more profoundly displayed than in this dispute. Two cities, intent not only on winning territory but on dominating the consciousness of the Greek world, offer up Homeric passages, cults, burial practices, and myth -- a whole tradition, in short -- to buttress their claims. Wickersham's analysis, though densely written, will add immensely to readers' appreciation of the archaic period.

William K. Freiert's rich and compressed essay, "Orpheus: A Fugue on the Polis," portrays Orpheus as a "figure of alterity" a "projection or mirroring" marked by his music, worship, and shamanistic activity. In his unsociability, strangeness, and extremism, Orpheus becomes a figure of all that democratic society -- here Freiert usefully invokes Vernant -- hopes to avoid. At the same time, Orpheus was central to Greek mythology, a mirror-figure permitting "self-definition and identity." This chapter provides a synoptic, though sometimes condensed, overview of Orpheus' roles in Greek myth and cult, comparing and contrasting him with Apollo and Dionysus, summarizing immense amounts of classical scholarship and skillfully applying recent anthropological studies.

"Alterity" takes many forms. Jean M. Davison's chapter "Myth and the Periphery" complements Freiert's in showing how a culture -- in this case, ancient Argos -- achieved self-definition through a series of myths about foreign places. Io, like other mythical young women, is destined to bear a founder, Epaphos, whose descendants (the Danaids) will, five generations later, return to Argos. There is symbolism in both the places and the peoples she visits: extreme human types (Scythians, e.g.) live on frontiers while the Egyptian delta figured as a sort of paradise. Greeks, horizontally and vertically centered in the Mediterranean (p. 58), achieved a sense of identity from these "travels into alterity." Io, child of the river Inachos in Argos, is used to support one of the most powerful of distinctions for a Greek, between autochthony and nomadism. The Io myth provided a "no-fault genesis of civilization based on the absence of a preemptive culture," furnishing Greek tribes with genealogies, Greek cities with a conviction that even Egyptians were originally Greek, and all Greeks with a sense of their panhellenic community.

The cultural importance of a "negative model" is yet again illustrated in Robert A. Segal's essay, "Adonis: A Greek Eternal Child." Segal begins by presenting two views of Adonis, Frazer's vegetation god and Detienne's "anomaly" whose activity falls at extremes, "bypassing the middle." He then urges the importance of a third version, the Jungian puer aeternus. The "eternal boy," linked forever to a mother figure and incapable of marriage, never develops the strong ego that permits growth in the external world. The annual death of Adonis is thus a return to Mother. One great merit of Segal's reading is the light it sheds on the social and political sides of weak ego development, the way in which the puer accepts tyranny or himself becomes tyrannical, leading a life of "political barrenness." (p. 82) "The myth of Adonis represents, then, the negation of practices without which the polis cannot be conceived: exogamy and reproduction. Without these, we get barrenness and death." (p. 85)

The thrust of the following two essays, both on Sophocles, is to modify the binary codes in which cultural development is often cast. John D.B. Hamilton, in "Antigone: Kinship, Justice, and the Polis," finds that the time-honored distinction between Creon as representative of the polis and Antigone as champion of the genos is untenable. Rather, he says, it is Antigone who truly stands for the city while Creon "is the unjust ruler who would destroy the very foundation of the body politic, the family." The ritual Antigone performs is an act of honor, kedos; it is also modest, as required in the new polis -- "a kind of civic and pre-civic justice that does justice to kin." (p. 96) To Athenians, Hamilton concludes, Antigone was an incarnation of "Dike who leads the polis to a new appreciation of kinship amity."

Thus summarized, the chapter seems short, and it is: thirteen pages. It is strengthened by a series of apt phrases and comparisons illustrating the role of Antigone: she is the last of the "womb sharers," adelphoi, in her family; she plays the role of the widow in the traditional funeral; winning the highest place in "the ascending scale of affection," she resembles the wife of Meleager, and resembles, too, a Homeric hero struggling for the corpse of the fallen warrior. Clearly, Antigone's concern for her family and family ritual are needed in the polis; but the essay seems insufficiently attentive to the drama on-stage, never dealing with Antigone's seeming nastiness to Ismene or her infatuation with the first-person singular (only recently surpassed, in epistolary exchanges on the APA election) -- signs of an insularity that undermine rather than aid the polis.

The essay also neglects the way characters develop over the course of the play. This leads to some egregious errors, e.g. when Hamilton criticizes Bernard Knox for espousing a traditional Hegelian view of Creon as "representative of the polis." In truth, Knox (in The Heroic Temper [Berkeley, 1964]) merely pointed out that Creon, after initially portraying himself in that light, is soon exposed as a fraud (pp. 108-110, which Hamilton ignores). The misreading of Knox is exacerbated by a garbled sentence, p. 88, that (as written) states that Creon, not Antigone, represents ta nomima, "age-old custom." (Instructors assigning this essay should be warned.) This essay has good remarks on etymology -- on words for "womb" and "family" and their importance -- but etymology, as an interpretive tool, remains static and inert unless coupled with analysis of dramaturgy.

In a second essay on Sophocles, David J. Bradshaw qualifies the conventional distinction that sets Ajax, the vestigially virtuous warrior, against the new "community oriented pragmatist," Odysseus. Bradshaw works through references to Ajax in Homer and Pindar, concluding that he is nimble, sensitive, and concerned for his fellows, and was appropriated in the fifth century as a "protective daimon" by an Athens that was "troubled by similar confusion" (pp. 115-116) about aidos. Given this background, the derangement of Ajax in Sophocles becomes "all the more terrible."

In concluding (pp. 121-125), Bradshaw uses Plutarch and other sources to illustrate his earlier cryptic aside on the "cultural confusion" of Athens in the 440's B.C. The homology he adduces between Ajax and Athens -- two forlorn and outraged defenders of allies -- is, as he himself says, "thinly allegorical." It neglects two basic methodological questions: a) when are we justified in claiming we've summed up the "mood" of an age (a problem reflected in the current debate about historical materialism, or in the feminist observation that "women had no Renaissance"); b) what permits us to assume a congruence between state and person, without asking whether an institution has a different sort of "virtue" than the person? Deeper treatment of these concerns might lead to a more convincing picture of the "temper of the time." All the same, Bradshaw's balanced and detailed survey of the role of Ajax in earlier literature adds to our understanding of the hero, and it's always worthwhile to be reminded that the Ajax, like the Oresteia, brings the values of the polis "to the very brink of destruction" before refounding them.

One of the most ambitious essays in this collection, Dora C. Pozzi's "The Polis in Crisis," offers parallel readings of Euripides' Ion and Aristophanes' Birds, tragic and comic celebrations of Dionysus. Both readings are ingenious: in the first, Pozzi skillfully shows that Apollo's role as dominant but cruel deity in this play is balanced and perhaps undercut by the subtler activity of Dionysus, alluded to in several choruses and at the end linked at once with Erichthonios, the "beneficent autochthon," and with Xuthus, the foreigner who "will ensure the continuity of the royal rule." He is, after all, the god best fit to "remedy the sexual impasse of autochthony, its inability to perpetuate the race."

Pozzi emphasizes the functions, not the origins, of comedy. Using Bakhtin, she describes it as a "carnivalized" genre that "incorporates tragedy" along with other subjects "as part of the existing polis structure that it challenges." (p. 145) The Birds, in Pozzi's eyes, is a comic "critique of the polis" that concludes by establishing simultaneously a utopia (nicely associated by Pozzi with music and with the thicket of Tereus) and "bellicose" empire (the result not of song but of Peisthetairos' logos). The "utopia," moreover, is double in nature, both innocent and carnal. This interpretation, although convincing and well worth reading, is somewhat weakened by an inconclusive and unconvincing attempt to show Dionysus at work in the play: lines 676ff., 737-751, and 1731-42, where Pozzi sees signs of Dionysus or the Dionysia, afford no ocular proof, and it is difficult to accept the unargued insinuation (p. 160) that the wedding-song of Zeus and Hera, as a hieros gamos, automatically calls to mind Dionysus' role in the Anthesteria. Further argument is needed here. Pozzi's demonstration of Dionysus' pivotal role in the Ion, on the other hand, is fascinating.

A brief conclusion situates these plays in the later years of the Athenian empire, linking them as pleas for acceptance of the "Dionysiac temper" in one or another form. Readers will have to draw their own conclusions here: my own concern is that in reading the plays as pleas we may lose a good deal of their richness and complexity. Far more impressive than this conclusion is the introductory section, "Myth, Drama and the Polis," pp. 126-134, which skillfully summarizes contemporary scholarship (especially that of John Winkler) on the origin and social function of tragedy, and on the movement of tragedy "away from the sacred" toward a position where mimesis became "open," and mythic traditions were reshaped.

The last two essays concern later periods. Martha Payne discusses the Hellenistic Alexandrian Bios Alexandrou ... kai praxeis, the "Alexander-Romance." This is a useful survey of the ways in which history becomes legend, and of the survival and elaboration of these legends from antiquity into modern Greece (Payne has checked the modern Greek collections). Fascinating in its use of detail (the meaning of the inscription ABGDE on the wall of Alexandria; the culinary origin of "Adriatic"; techniques for managing the culture of non-Greek subjects), the essay remains primarily descriptive.

Finally, Thomas J. Sienkewicz argues that "The Greeks are indeed like the others," echoing the conclusion of Detienne's essay and challenging George Steiner's grandiose (though revealing) claim that there have been few "genuine additions to the basic range of cultural encodings, to the psychological mapping by which a civilization locates itself," since the Greeks. Sienkewicz' test case is that product of the "epic belt" of West Africa, Sunjata. (Sundiata in what is, unfortunately, the currently most available English translation.)

Sienkewicz argues, against Steiner, that myths emerge from and reflect social contexts, and concurs with Jack Goody that the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" is more problematic than many allow. He points out the West African material fits a widespread epic pattern in which pan-cultural myths are challenged by local variants.

In West Africa, Manding oral literature has over the years evolved a wealth of co-existing multiforms that are constantly, consciously, adapted to "changing performative situations." As in ancient Greece, members of this culture were divided by dialects, but their utterances remained mutually intelligible, a fact that, along with long-term political stability, encouraged pan-cultural unity and cohesiveness.

Sunjata (1230-1255), "founder of the Manding empire and its greatest chief," is the center of the common epic, which is marked by irreconcilably contradictory versions. Basic themes (miraculous conception, birth, childhood, exile, defeat of the Susu king Samanguru) occur in all versions, though these could be expanded or contracted from a single evening to 30 hours in length. The several transcribed tellings reveal the tension between diversity and unity in Manding society, the effect of locality and audience on the poem, the shifting roles of characters and the shifting relations between past and present, between Islam and animism, and the crucial role of the griot who recites the epic. These observations are important in their own right, and incidentally benefit our continuing effort to understand how Homeric epic was shaped. Sienkewicz briefly sums up some of these connections with Greek culture in his conclusion.

This is an extremely interesting essay, in part because Sienkewicz is not simply, in the condescending manner of many classicists, dragging in Sunjata as a "test case" or "parallel" to the Iliad: if the Iliad had never been composed, Sienkewicz' study of this important epic would remain substantial and meritorious. Sienkewicz seems to have studied Manding culture and contemporary anthropology extensively, and his overview of the culture and the epic are exemplary. There is a clear parallel with Wickersham's essay, in the sense that both view epics as continuously evolving, never frozen, and in this sense as opposed to the notion of a "book."

Sienkewicz' essay is an admirable conclusion to this collection. It is clear from the cross-references between the essays that this summer seminar enabled scholars working in a wide range of areas to collaborate productively. The overall success of the volume is a fine testimony to the National Endowment for the Humanities and Professor Nagy, but most of all to the contributors, who have succeeded just where many in our profession fail, in finding a way to attend to their special interests and simultaneously work together toward a common goal.